With "Zorba and Lucky," Italian feature-length animation claims a niche for itself in local hardtops alongside U.S. Goliaths "Mulan" and "The Prince of Egypt." After the success of the Christmas feature "The Blue Arrow" a year ago, director Enzo D'Alo is back with the most expensive ($6 million) toon ever made in Italy.

With “Zorba and Lucky,” Italian feature-length animation claims a niche for itself in local hardtops alongside U.S. Goliaths “Mulan” and “The Prince of Egypt.” After the success of the Christmas feature “The Blue Arrow” a year ago, director Enzo D’Alo is back with the most expensive ($6 million) toon ever made in Italy, a charming, very politically correct tale about an ugly duckling. Pic went out wide in 100 prints over the Yule period, and has so far performed decently, grossing $5 million.

Based on a bestseller by Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda that has been translated into 12 languages, the short feature is a fable urging tolerance and respect for those who are different from us. Zorba, a young male cat, finds a dying seagull in his yard covered with oil from an ocean slick and promises to hatch the gull’s egg, raise the baby bird and teach it to fly. With the help of his cat pals, he manages to keep his promise, though little Lucky grows up with a major identity problem.

When she’s dragged down into the sewers by a gang of criminal rats, the cats hide inside a huge piece of “Trojan cheese” and stage a daring rescue. In a heart-wrenching, very swift finale, Lucky flies off to join her own kind.

The message, though crystal clear, never becomes preachy, and D’Alo and co-scripter Umberto Marino wisely allow the story to hold center stage throughout. Pic’s Italian version features the streetwise voice of comic actor Carlo Verdone and some excellent musical numbers composed by David Rhodes and sung by top pop singers like Ivana Spagna and Leda Battisti. English-lingo version now in the works plans to use the voices of Peter Hammil and Midge Ure, who can be heard, along with other Real World staffers, in some of the choruses.

Entirely financed by the Cecchi Gori Group, the film, drawn in soft colors and rounded shapes, has a more conventionally modern look than the all-indie “Arrow.” It is likely to create fewer translation problems, as there is really nothing specifically European about the characters or situations, apart from designer Michel Fuzellier’s red-tiled houses in a city by the sea.

Chief animator Silvio Pautasso and his crew strain to make the cats and gulls move naturally but take more liberties with the evil, red-eyed sewer rats, who are scary critters by any standard.

Zorba and Lucky

Italian

Production

A Cecchi Gori Distribuzione release (in Italy) of a CGG Tiger Cinematografica production. (International sales: Cecchi Gori, Rome.) Produced by Vittorio and Rita Cecchi Gori. Executive producer, Maria Fares. Directed by Enzo D'Alo. Screenplay, D'Alo, Umberto Marino, based on the novel "Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly" by Luis Sepulveda.

Crew

Editor, Rita Rossi; music, David Rhodes; production designer, Michel Fuzellier; sound director, Giorgio Vita Levi; chief animator, Silvio Pautasso; character designer, Walter Cavazzuti; singers, Ivana Spagna, Leda Battisti, Samuele Bersani, Gaetano Curreri degli Stadio, Antonio Albanese. Reviewed at Quirinale Cinema, Rome, Dec. 20, 1998. Running time: 75 MIN.

With

VOICES: Poet - Luis Sepulveda
Zorba - Carlo Verdone
Big Rat - Antonio Albanese
Bobulina - Melba Ruffo di Calabria
Lucky - Sofia Baratta, Veronica Puccio, Domitilla d'Amico
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